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The Devastating Effects Of Shame And Stigma


Shame and stigma surrounding mental illness remains prevalent worldwide. The effects of shame and stigma are devastating, can prevent treatment, and change the way we see people who are in desperate need of healing.

Stigma Is A Misunderstanding Of Addiction And Mental Illness

ASAM, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, emphasizes that we must recognize addiction as a chronic disease. This important body of addiction providers understands that we must rid ourselves of ideas that reflect moral judgment on those with mental health disorders such as addiction. “This is a relic of a bygone era when our understanding of addiction was limited, when many thought that addiction was some sort of moral failing and should be a source of shame,” states their website.

Shame Is A Misunderstanding Of Addiction And Those Who Are Mentally Ill

Shame is born out of a need to characterize someone as being “bad” or “wrong” for being who they are. When we cast those who are addicted or mentally ill as criminals or immoral heathens, we shame the sufferer as if addiction is something that they are, rather than something that they have. We must shift our perspective to understand that addiction is a disorder of the brain. Addiction is not something that someone is. Addiction is a chronic, progressive, and life-threatening disease that someone has. Someone who has an addiction is sick and is in need of treatment to help remedy that sickness. There is no shame in sickness. As a society, we do not cast shame on any other disease, nor do we stigmatize the ill for being sick. We would not criminalize a cancer patient, place moral judgments on a diabetic, or neglect necessary treatment to a gunshot victim.

Addiction And Mental Illness Are Not Choices

As a result of immense scientific research and progress, we understand today that both addiction and other mental illnesses are medical concerns, not moral ones. More importantly, we have significant scientific evidence which emphasizes that addiction and mental illness is not a choice. ASAM explains, “No one chooses to develop this disease. Instead, a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental stimulus – analogous to other chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension – can result in physical changes to the brain’s circuitry, which lead to tolerance, cravings, and the characteristic compulsive and destructive behaviors of addiction that are such a large public health burden for our nation.”

Shame And Stigma Affect The Way People Get Help

Our own beliefs, thoughts, and judgments toward addiction and mental illness affect the way we treat people who have an addiction and/or mental illness. If we take our personal perspectives and place them on a greater local, social, national, and even political scale, we can see how these strongly held beliefs can become extremely problematic. Shame and stigma don’t just affect the way we see people individually. When millions upon millions of people hold these same beliefs, it affects the way people are treated socially, medically, and politically. The Drug Policy Alliance cites that, “People with substance misuse issues are less likely to be offered help than are people with a mental illness or physical disability… According to research, the majority of healthcare professionals hold negative, stereotyped views of people who use illicit drugs.”

Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization committed to ending the life-shattering effects of addiction, cites a 2009 study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy which highlighted the effect of stigma in simple word choices. “Highly trained mental health and addiction specialists” either read a passage referring to someone as a “substance abuser” or a passage referring to someone as “having a substance use disorder.” The difference in verbiage, connected to deeply woven shame and stigma, had a troubling effect. “The group who read the ‘substance abuser’ passage were more likely to see the person as deserving of punitive action, like a jail sentence. They were more likely to see the person as personally responsible for their condition…”

“Deserving of punitive action,” “jail sentence,” and “personally responsible for their condition,” are all deeply held biases regarding an individual who has a medical condition. The effects of shame and stigma quite literally disconnect society from empathy and compassion, which directly inhibits the opportunities people with addiction or mental illness have for receiving treatment.

How We Can Help End Shame And Stigma

As individuals, we can change the collective consciousness of our society by changing the way we personally view shame and stigma surrounding addiction and mental illness. We can start by examining our own longhand beliefs about addiction, mental illness, and those who live with these disorders. Next, we can take honest stock of our behaviors and see if we treat someone with addiction differently than we do anyone else. We must ask ourselves the difficult questions, “Why do I believe this person is less deserving of health, happiness, and prosperity than anyone else?” “Why do I feel less empathy and compassion for someone who is sick?” Educating ourselves and others on the disease of addiction, as well as the impact of shame and stigma, can change the world and save lives.


Origins Behavioral Healthcare is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today:  561-841-1296.

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If you or someone you love has a substance use or mental health disorder, Origins Behavioral HealthCare can help. We will work alongside you to provide the most comprehensive treatment available.